Monthly Archives: April 2015

POP SONGS, HOT TUNES, WILD BILL DAVISON and the JAZZ GIANTS

It’s not often that I receive a new CD on Monday, play it on Monday and Tuesday, and sit down to write about it on Wednesday, but the new reissue (I know, illogical but true) of a March 1968 session led by Wild Bill Davison, issued on Delmark Records, has inspired me.  The session was originally recorded by John Norris for Sackville Records, and the band — for once — deserved the title, with Wild Bill, cornet; Benny Morton, trombone; Herb Hall, clarinet; Claude Hopkins, piano; Arvell Shaw, string bass; Buzzy Drootin, drums.  

Davison CD

What makes this CD so endearing is not a whole host of rare / previously unissued material — although there is one new performance and one unissued take.  No, it is the band, the music, and the repertoire.

Although Davison was praised by none other than Ruby Braff, who said that the pride of Defiance, Ohio, had “drama,” I found Davison’s appeal limited in his later years.  He passionately got up and played for all he was worth — he never seemed to coast — but his solos were often set-pieces, established in 1947 and played verbatim night after night.  I recall seeing him in New York City in the Seventies, and it was rather like watching a polished stand-up comedian do identical material.  All one could say was, “Well, Bill’s timing tonight is off,” or “He’s on fire tonight!” but he rarely surprised.  But on this disc he seems inspired sufficiently by his colleagues to venture from his time-tested solos, and the result often made me look up and think, “I never heard him play that before,” which, for me, is one of the great pleasures of improvisation.

Herb Hall sounds lovely and liquid; Arvell Shaw is more than reliable.  Claude Hopkins was never captured enough on record, so his particular version of stride — polite but classically perfect — is a delight, in solo and in ensemble.

But this CD is unusually valuable for the opportunity to hear Buzzy Drootin and Benny Morton — players held dear by their colleagues but rarely given any opportunity to lead sessions.  I saw Buzzy in person many times in the early Seventies, and I fear I did not appreciate him sufficiently.  But now, heard afresh, how arresting he sounds!  Yes, there are echoes of Catlett in his four-bar breaks, but he is entirely his own man with his own sound-galaxy and his own way of thinking, as individualistic as Cliff Leeman.  Instantly recognizable, always propulsive, ever engaged.  And Benny Morton, who recorded with a wide range of players and singers over a half-century (appearing live with Louis, Bird, and Benny Carter!) is in peerless form, his eloquent phrasing, his yearning tone, a great boon.  Sadly, Morton, a terribly modest man, doesn’t have a solo feature (which might have been WITHOUT A SONG).

The CD isn’t perfect.  A few of the solo features sound overdone and the band is, for me, a little too cleanly miked (each instrument rings through, as if there were six separate tracks rather than one — the perils of modern recording and the horror of “leakage”), but it is a rewarding hour-plus.

And it made me think, which is always an enjoyable unexpected benefit — about the repertoire.  Consider this list: STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE / DARDANELLA / BLACK AND BLUE (two takes) / I WOULD DO ANYTHING FOR YOU / I FOUND A NEW BABY / BLUE AGAIN / I SURRENDER, DEAR / YESTERDAYS / THEM THERE EYES / THREE LITTLE WORDS.  What struck me about that assortment is that most of the band’s choices were “popular songs” known to the larger audience rather than “jazz favorites” known only to the cognoscenti.

Repertoire in jazz has often served artists as ways to define themselves and their allegiances.  If you are a young singer or player, and you offer a performance (or a CD) of your original compositions, you are in effect saying, “Take me seriously as a composer; I have ideas and feelings to offer you that aren’t Cole Porter, Shelton Brooks, or Ornette Coleman.”

Some players and singers use repertoire as loving homage: Bix Beiderbecke played AT THE JAZZ BAND BALL because his heroes, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, had written and recorded it; Eddie Condon and his friends played the song because it was a good one but also as a loving bow to Bix; players in this century offer it as an extension of the Condon tradition.  In any jazz club or festival, one can hear people playing the music of Louis, Bird, Hawkins, or a hundred others.  Even if one is playing the blues or a song built on familiar changes, the choice of the melodic line superimposed on top says, “Here’s to Don Byas.  Here’s to Roy Eldridge,” and so on.

But this CD reminds me of something Davison told an interviewer.  When he came to New York City in 1943, he was asked by Commodore Records’ saintly founder Milt Gabler to make 12″ 78s of “classic jazz tunes,” for instance PANAMA, THAT’S A PLENTY, and more.  Davison remembered that these songs were not what he was used to playing — for audiences that had come to hear jazz — in Chicago and Milwaukee, but they had played popular songs of the day. And when I heard him in New York, he was most likely to play AS LONG AS I LIVE, SUNDAY, or THEM THERE EYES.  And no one, sitting in the audience, demanded their money back because he wasn’t playing “authentic” jazz.

What the moral of all this is I can’t say.  Perhaps it’s only that I would like to hear Mainstream / traditional ensembles remember the treasures of popular song. There are worlds to be explored beyond the same two dozen favorites — favorites often chosen as markers of ideology / regional or stylistic pride (BIG BEAR STOMP and RIVERBOAT SHUFFLE).  I’d love to hear such bands play THERE’S A SMALL HOTEL, YOU CALL IT MADNESS, or WHERE THE BLUE OF THE NIGHT MEETS THE GOLD OF THE DAY.

I offer musical evidence:

Wild Bill paying tribute to Louis at the 1970 Newport Jazz Festival by playing THEM THERE EYES, supported by Dave McKenna, Larry Ridley, Oliver Jackson (there is an unsubtle edit in the film, probably removing a Ridley solo, alas) with even more beautiful — although subtle — backing from Ray Nance, Bobby Hackett, Benny Morton, and Tyree Glenn.  “Indecent exposure” for sure.

May your happiness increase!

MARTY NAPOLEON (1921-2015)

Pianist, singer, composer Marty Napoleon “made the transition” from this earthly world to another one on Monday night, April 27.  His dear friend Geri Goldman Reichgut told me that on his last night on the planet he ate some dessert and listened to music: the signs of what my Irish friends call “a beautiful death.”

I can’t find it in my heart to be too mournful about Marty’s moving out of this earthly realm.  It seems to me that the New Orleanians have the right idea: cry a little at the birth, because that spirit taking corporeal form might have some bumps in this life, and rejoice at the death, because the spirit is free — to ramble the cosmos in the company of other spirits.

I was in conversation with the wonderful pianist Mike Lipskin last night — we sat on a bench in Greenwich Village and lamented that fewer people are playing particular kinds of the music we both love . . . and we both envisioned a future where it might not even be performed.  But I said fervently, “The MUSIC will always be here,” and I believe that.

It is true in Marty’s case as well.  And as a tribute to the man and his spirit, I offer some tangible immortal evidence here and here.

And a closing story.  One of my heroes is the writer William Maxwell, also no longer around in his earthly shape.  Late in his life, he began taking piano lessons and working his way through some simple classical pieces.  I think this gave him great pleasure but was also frustrating — in the way making music is even more difficult for those who have spent their lives appreciating the superb performances of others.  In his final year, a dear friend said to him, “Bill, in the life to come you will be able to play the piano with ease, won’t you?”  And he replied, “In the next life I will not be making music.  I will be music.”

And he is.  As is Marty.

May your happiness increase.

DO NOT ADJUST YOUR SET: TAL RONEN’S HOLY MOLY at LITTLE BRANCH, APRIL 13, 2015 (ROSSANO SPORTIELLO, JAY RATTMAN)

Here is what you need to know about the four black — or blank — rectangles that follow, blazing with gorgeous sounds in near-complete darkness.  All of this is the ongoing creation of the deeply inspired Tal Ronen (string bass, composer, instant arranger) and his friends Rossano Sportiello (piano), Jay Rattman (clarinet) — captured at Little Branch, on lower Seventh Avenue South in New York City, April 13, 2015.

JUST IN TIME:

I’M PUTTING ALL MY EGGS IN ONE BASKET:

AVALON:

‘S’WONDERFUL:

You don’t need eyes to see, only ears to hear, when the music is so fine.

May your happiness increase!

“YOURS SINCERELY”: RAY SKJELBRED, MARC CAPARONE, BEAU SAMPLE, HAL SMITH at the SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST (November 28, 2014)

In this era of all things made insubstantial, many of us think of communication as somehow bodiless: the tinny voice coming out of the cellphone, the text, the email, the Facebook message.  But there’s still mail, and even if you haven’t gotten a handwritten letter or card in years, perhaps you can remember the thrill of going to the mailbox and getting a surprise, a delight, something that made you very happy — whether you opened the envelope right there or waited until you got inside your home.  (The endorphin rush that one gets when someone you want to hear from has sent you an email is this century’s equivalent, but it isn’t the same as holding an envelope in your hands.)

ONE SWEET LETTER FROM YOU focuses on someone waiting for that letter, for the Loved One to drop a line of sweet affection.  Here it’s played and sung magnificently at the 2014 San Diego Jazz Fest by Ray Skjelbred, piano /vocal; Marc Caparone, cornet; Beau Sample, string bass; Hal Smith, drums:

Dear Ray, those piano lessons weren’t wasted.  We bless your parents.

May your happiness increase!

“THIS TIME THE DREAM’S ON ME”: BARBARA ROSENE / EHUD ASHERIE HONOR JOHNNY MERCER at MEZZROW (April 14, 2015)

THIS TIME THE DREAM’S ON ME was written by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer for the 1941 film BLUES IN THE NIGHT.  It’s a haunting song — its melody like a wistful prayer, its lyrics mixing realistic sorrow and rueful imaginings.  For me, the sorrow in observing the present outweighs the hopefulness of “what might be,” but I hear the singer bravely traversing the landscape of sad fact and wisps of happier possibility.  Mercer’s lyrics stand as a modern poem, and I was surprised to learn that he was not pleased with them:

It’s one of Harold’s nicest tunes. It’s kind of a poor lyric, I think. Built on the thing about “the drink’s on me.” I think it’s too flip for that melody. I think it should be nicer. I was in a hurry I remember the director didn’t like it. I could have improved it, too. I really wish I had. But, you know, we had a lot of songs to get out in a short amount of time, and we had another picture to do. (The source is a BBC interview, excerpted in Gene Lees’ biography of Mercer, PORTRAIT OF JOHNNY, 142).

The unpredictably brilliant Alec Wilder doesn’t even mention the song in his book AMERICAN POPULAR SONG.

I think this song so beautifully, perhaps painfully encapsulates the simultaneous feelings: “We’ve had something deep.  It no longer exists, and it cannot.  But I would like to imagine a place in time where it could, even as I know that dream is tormenting by its elusiveness.”  So much is said yet so much is unsayable.

See if you don’t agree while considering this quietly rich performance by Barbara Rosene and Ehud Asherie — at Mezzrow on April 14, 2015:

I love the careful pacing — neither maudlin nor too optimistic — and the deep sincerity of Barbara’s voice, the sweet unerring support Ehud always gives. The difficult reality in one hand, the wisp of a dream that can’t come true in the other hand.  Such music can see anyone through, even as it delineates sadness and loss.

And here, because we all need to know that joyous love is possible, is another gem from that same evening.

May your happiness increase! 

THE GOOD NEIGHBOUR POLICY

PETE NEIGHBOUR portrait

Pete Neighbour (hence the title) is a wonderful clarinetist, and his new CD, BACK IN THE NEIGHBOURHOOD, is a consistent delight.

Before you think, “If this fellow is so good, why haven’t I heard of him before?” put that thought to rest.  You have.  Here. And you can click here to hear some sound samples from this new CD and to learn more about this session. For those who feel disinclined to click, here are the details of the sixty-four minutes and seven seconds.  The compositions are I WANT TO BE HAPPY / BOULEVARD OF BROKEN DREAMS / I MAY BE WRONG / YOU MAKE ME FEEL SO YOUNG / OPUS ONE / COME SUNDAY / LIZA / WHAT WILL I TELL MY HEART? / TEACH ME TONIGHT / WILLOW WEEP FOR ME / A FOGGY DAY / AFTER YOU’VE GONE.  (I would start my listening session with BOULEVARD, which is a feathery, pensive masterpiece.)

The disc was recorded in London in September 2014; Pete appears with Jim Mullen, guitar; David Newton, piano; Nat Steele, vibraphone; Andrew Cleyndert, bass; Tom Gordon, drums.  Louise Cookman makes a guest vocal appearance on YOU MAKE ME FEEL SO YOUNG and WHAT WILL I TELL MY HEART?

Aside from a few rousers, the whole CD is carried off as a series of medium / medium-fast rhythm performances, where the band superbly rocks, quietly and persuasively.  Pete himself is a great lyrical player — hear his touching COME SUNDAY, which has a dear pulse but retains its hymnlike aspect.  And he resolutely chooses to sound like himself, although he is clearly inspired by Benny and Buddy — with a sidelong glance at Ken.  His approach, although he has technique to make any clarinetist consider bringing the instrument in for a trade, is not in rapid-fire flurries of notes.  Rather, Pete (in the best heroic way) constructs logical long-limbed phrases and sweet solos out of those phrases, everything fitting together in a way that sounds fully improvised but is also compositionally satisfying.  And the tempos chosen caress the songs rather than attacking the hearer. The rest of the band is quite wonderful, and each number unfolds in its own fashion without ever being predictable.  The session has the gentle exploratory air of a late Ruby Braff recording, as the band continually changes shape into duos and trios — with echoes of Dave McKenna and Ellis Larkins in the duets incorporating Newton’s piano. Louise Cookman, whom I’d not heard before, is a wonder: gently memorable on her two guest appearances.

For more about Pete, here is his Facebook page.

This very well-produced and reassuring CD is available through the usual sources, but here is an easy place to purchase one.  Or several, from the best musical Neighbour.

May your happiness increase!

THE MUSIC SPEAKS FOR ITSELF: THE WEST TEXAS JAZZ PARTY (May 14-17, 2015)

I could write a long piece on the history of the West Texas Jazz Party — in Odessa, Texas — which in 2016 will celebrate its fiftieth year.  This, for those keeping count, makes it the longest-running jazz party in existence.  I could list the names of the luminaries who played, say, in 1980 — Red Norvo, John Best, Lou Stein, Carl Fontana, Kenny Davern, George Masso, Herb Ellis, Buddy Tate, Flip Phillips, Dave McKenna, Milt Hinton, Gus Johnson, PeeWee Erwin, Cliff Leeman, Bobby Rosengarden, John Bunch, Buddy Tate, and the still-vibrant Ed Polcer, Bucky Pizzarelli, Michael Moore, Bob Wilber.

The West Texas Jazz Society site can be found here — quite informative.

But I think it is more important to offer the evidence: the music made at this party, which is superb Mainstream jazz.  Here are several videos from the 2013 WTJP — they will unfold in sequence if you allow them to — featuring Ken Peplowski, Ehud Asherie, Ed Metz, Joel Forbes, Chuck Redd, Randy Sandke, and John Allred:

And the musicians themselves speak sweetly about the pleasure of attending the party and playing there (Ken, Chuck Redd, Dan Barrett, Bucky):

The superb videos — both music and interview — are the work of David Leonnig, who’s also helped inform me about the Party.

This year’s party will take place May 14-17, at the MCM Eleganté Hotel
in Odessa, Texas and the musicians are:

Piano: Johnny Varro, Ehud Asherie, Rossano Sportiello
Bass: Joel Forbes. Frank Tate, Nicki Parrott (vocals)
Drums: Chuck Redd (vibes), Tony Tedesco, Butch Miles
Trumpet: Ed Polcer, Warren Vache, Randy Sandke
Trombone: Dan Barrett, John Allred
Reeds: Ken Peplowski, Scott Robinson, Allan Vache
Guitar: Bucky Pizzarelli, Ed Laub (vocals)
Vocals: Rebecca Kilgore

The West Texas Jazz Party is sponsored in part by:

• The Texas Commission for the Arts
• Odessa Council for the Arts and Humanities
• The Rea Charitable Trust

Patron Tickets: $200: Reserved Seating for all performances and Saturday Brunch.

General Admission: Each performance $50 • Brunch $50

For Hotel Reservations, call 432-368-5885 and ask tor the Jazz Rate of $129.00. For Jazz Party or Brunch Reservations, call 432-552-8962. The WTJP now is accepting credit cards or make a check payable to: West Texas Jazz Society • P.O. Box 10832 • Midland, Texas 79702.

It looks as if a good time will be had by all. For the forty-ninth consecutive year!

May your happiness increase!

CONFESS YOUR FEARS AND THEY MAY BE TRANSFORMED: DUKE HEITGER, BEN POLCER, RUSS PHILLIPS, TOM FISCHER, JOHN COCUZZI, PAUL KELLER, DANNY COOTS at the ATLANTA JAZZ PARTY (April 17, 2015)

I’M CONFESSIN’ (a song with an unusual history — written in 1929 and published with another title and lyrics, then recreated a year later with the same melody, new lyrics, and an entirely different set of composers credited) is a lovely durable melody . . . of course, first made immortal by Louis Armstrong, who sang and played it for the next forty years.  I couldn’t find a copy of the first sheet music, but here is a later version:

I'M CONFESSIN'Many bands pick this as a reliable rhythm ballad — and some race through it as if on jazz cruise control, taking it as an interlude between one punishingly fast / loud number and the next.

Happily, this was not the case with Duke Heitger, Ben Polcer, trumpet; Russ Phillips, trombone; Tom Fischer, clarinet; John Cocuzzi, piano; Paul Keller, strig bass; Danny Coots, drums, at this year’s Atlanta Jazz Party (this performance was only the second song of the three-day marathon).  These master musicians created something frankly alchemical, transforming sadness into joy:

Everything about this performance entrances me: the sweet steady tread of the rhythm section (a wonderful team saying with every beat to the horn players, “Create whatever is in your heart and we will be there to support you, to make you feel safe”) to the compact singing utterances of the horns — how to make those instruments speak in such heartfelt ways in sixteen bars!  (Sixteen bars go by so quickly.)  The variety of sounds!

And just as a self-referential digression: inspired by the song, I stopped writing and went twenty feet to the other end of this long room, where a cherished cornet rests on blue velour in its ancient case.  I picked it up and “played” the first sixteen bars of I’M CONFESSIN’ and reminded myself only how incredibly difficult making an instrument sing is.  Mine sang, but I won’t describe how or what it was singing.

From the title alone, one would think that I’M CONFESSIN’ would be an exultant outpouring of love, with the Lover offering feelings openly.  And that is indeed the case.  But the Lover here is both frightened and self-aware, wondering if those feelings will be reciprocated or discarded.  And the Love Object — the source of power in this interlude — is both inscrutable and ambiguous: the eyes embody one “strange” message; the lips offer another.

I think that JAZZ LIVES readers might need to hear the lyrics as well as the melody. And thanks to my dear friend Austin Casey, here is THE version of the century: Louis on the Frank Sinatra Show.

Gorgeous, light-hearted, and heartfelt.  I offer this as evidence to those who think Louis didn’t care about the lyrics: here he offers each word as if it had been written by Keats.  Tonation and phrasing for the ages.  I also offer this performance not as a diminution of the one created on April 17, 2015, but to show that the two stand side-by-side, our heroes in this century so completely lit from within by Louis’ blessed spirit.

A last word about the alchemy of music, of candor.  The musicians in Atlanta did the impossible by transforming unease and anxiety into something beautiful, in the spirit of Louis.  This transformation is not always possible in what passes for real life, but it is worth attempting.  Keeping one’s terrors to oneself is what we have been trained to do.  Adults don’t talk about what scares them: they might terrify the children.  But I wonder if we said out loud to ourselves, “I am deeply afraid that ___________ might happen,” that the fear, put into syllables we can hear ourselves saying, might be more manageable.  Saying to the Love Object, “I’m afraid some day you’ll leave me / Saying ‘Can’t we still be friends?'” is a true act of courage, because the Love Object can always say back, “Indeed, that was just what I was thinking this very moment,” but [hence the MAY in my title] it could provoke reassurance.

JAZZ LIVES offers no advice in relationships, and hence is held harmless from any liability.  But speaking what you feel, embodying what you feel is always courageous, no matter what the result.

Keep CONFESSIN’, I say.

May your happiness increase! 

COME TO “JASSAFRASS”! (Hint: AN ALL-GIRL VINTAGE JAZZ DANCE TROUPE and THE JAMES DAPOGNY QUARTET)

I’ve been around the world in a plane.  But I’ve never been to Ypsilanti, Michigan.  However, this event is exerting a powerful pull west for the evening of May 8, 2015, at 8 PM.

ERIN MORRIS RAGDOLLS May 8

Here is the Facebook event page.

This event is the Second Annual Ragdolls Revue.

No, it doesn’t feature Little Orphan Annie figurines or those most beloved, apparently boneless, felines.

Erin Morris and and her Ragdolls are a splendid improvisatory jazz dance group. And that requires some explanation.  For me, most “jazz dance” is either wildly unfettered — tap dancers rioting percussively — or stylized, sometimes stiffly choreographed exercises performed to jazz music but without much flexibility.

Erin and the Ragdolls (do I see a comic book series, syndication rights, and real money?  Any hip investors?) are quite different.  They create their own loose-limbed but precise world.  It is easy to imagine them as the twenty-first century reincarnation of sisters / friends jiving in the basement to the new blue-label Decca or OKeh, and to the casual eye they might look more like kids who are following similar impulses, but their choreography masterfully fools the eye: it looks as if it was just thought up on the spot, but anyone who’s ever done a right rock turn can tell that their routines are intelligently planned while appearing improvised.  Just like jazz music, as a matter of fact.  Roadmaps plus passion, if you know the lingo.

I delight in the idea of an “all-girl vintage jazz dance company.”  It gives me hope for our civilization.

Here’s a sample, and an inspiring one, of what JASSAFRASS will be all about. Cross-species, too, as the Ragdolls work it out to the ALLIGATOR CRAWL:

The clip is from 2014; the dancers are Erin Morris, Brittany Morton, Sarah Campbell, and Rachel Bomphray. The musicians in the James Dapogny Quartet are James Dapogny, Mike Karoub, Rod McDonald, and Joe Fee. Videography by Richard Peng.

JASSAFRASS features live hot jazz from the incomparable James Dapogny Quartet, in a full-length show that unveils fresh, exciting dance numbers from the Ragdolls and scintillates with special guest dancer Nathan Bugh, all the way from New York City. The College Theater at WCC provides amazing acoustics and cozy raked seating for your unfettered viewing enjoyment.

Tickets $15 in advance (see your local Ragdoll), $20 at the door.

In case you are confused by all this, here is a visual aid.  This is what the thing in itself — a ticket to the show — will look like.  Don’t you covet this paper and what it offers  you?

ERIN MORRIS ticket

To learn more about the Ragdolls, visit www.emragdolls.com

May your happiness increase!

“BABY, LOOK AT YOU NOW!”: BARBARA ROSENE / EHUD ASHERIE at MEZZROW (April 14, 2015)

I had the great good fortune to enjoy and witness a delightful evening of Johnny Mercer songs — as performed by Barbara Rosene and Ehud Asherie at Mezzrow on West Tenth Street in New York City on April 14, 2015.

Before you savor this delightful interlude, some words about the duo.  If you’ve been following JAZZ LIVES, you know that Ehud is one of the most swinging, most alertly intuitive players ever.  When he’s around, the music pulses; lyrical surprising melodies spring into bloom.

I do not think that I’ve ever had such a glorious opportunity to hear and record Barbara before, even though I’ve known and admired her for a decade (starting with the hallowed evenings at the Cajun, Jacques-Imo’s, and a dozen other places, including churches).  When I first met Barbara, she had a spectacularly beautiful voice: I remember taking a friend who was a deep opera aficionado, didn’t particularly like jazz or improvisation, who couldn’t stop talking about the marvels of sound that Barbara created.  But it isn’t just her voice.  Many singers have lovely voices, but Barbara knows how to construct a small compelling drama (or comedy) from a song’s particulars.

When I first heard her, Barbara was much more a brightly-plumaged Twenties songbird, flitting from branch to branch, now naughty, now sweet, now coy.  I am sure she could easily inhabit those worlds now, but her feeling and mastery have deepened, and she exhibits a deep emotional understanding and range.  I don’t mean “acting”; I mean “being,” put into song.

Here she and Ehud explore a song that everyone knows, that usually is performed at a much faster tempo — to the edge of self-parody.  Listen to the transformations they effect on YOU MUST HAVE BEEN A BEAUTIFUL BABY:

That’s a performance I have not been able to listen to without going back and playing it again.

Before Barbara purls her way into the song, she talks a bit about “marvelous,” a meditation stimulated by her thoughts on TOO MARVELOUS FOR WORDS.  And magically she asks a deep plaintive question —

“Is nothing a marvel?”

which could, for the properly attuned, be the only text for a lifelong course in gratitude and deep reverent awe.

I marvel at Barbara Rosene.  And there will be more marvelous Mercer performances with Ehud Asherie (himself a marvel) to come.

May your happiness increase!

THE VIEW FROM TABLE 3 WAS GRAND; THE MUSIC, GRANDER: BEN POLCER, DAN BARRETT, ALLAN VACHÉ, JOHN COCUZZI, NICKI PARROTT, DANNY COOTS at the ATLANTA JAZZ PARTY (April 18, 2015)

I’m still grinning when I think of all the good music created last weekend (April 17-19) at the 26th Atlanta Jazz Party.

Here’s another leisurely sample, performed by Ben Polcer, trumpet; Allan Vaché, clarinet; Dan Barrett, trombone; John Cocuzzi, piano; Nicki Parrott, string bass; Danny Coots, drums.

It’s the ROYAL GARDEN BLUES.  Now, if I could see you, I would catch some of my readers in mid-wince.  “God, not that song again!  That’s what’s wrong with ‘traditional jazz’!”  Even I have been known to think and say, “I wish I could have a moratorium on ROYAL GARDEN,” but this performance reminds me again how little the repertoire has to do with the beauty created:

Although they play the song with the correct conventions, the appropriate gestures, there’s nothing locked-in here.  Once those gavottes are accomplished, you can feel the musicians relaxing into a medium-fast twelve bar blues . . . and each one has a beautiful story to tell.  Pay particular attention to that rhythm section!  And you all know and admire Messrs. Vaché and Barrett, but one of the great lyrical surprises of the AJP was Ben Polcer — who is so much more than just “Ed Polcer’s kid” — an easy, hot player with a fine range who knows the twists and turns but also has a swing feel . . . now and again reminding me of Buck Clayton, and that is high praise.

This performance was only one of more than a hundred at the AJP — and it is by no means the only standout.  Next year, the Party will be on April 15, 16, and 17. I hope to be there, and at Table Three.  My jazz home away from home for three days.

May your happiness increase!

JOY TO THE TENTH POWER: A GLIMPSE OF THE 2015 ATLANTA JAZZ PARTY (DANNY COOTS, PAUL KELLER, DALTON RIDENHOUR, ALLAN VACHÉ, TOM FISCHER, DUKE HEITGER, DAN BARRETT, BRIA SKONBERG, BEN POLCER, RUSS PHILLIPS, April 18, 2015)

C.S. Lewis never wrote a book called EXHAUSTED BY JOY, but I could do it for him — having just returned from the Atlanta Jazz Party, which ran deliciously through the weekend of April 17 through 19, 2015.  I will spare you the exuberant descriptions (because I still don’t have the energy) and just offer this: the closer from Danny Coots’ Saturday-night extravaganza, a splendidly compact and ebullient PANAMA. I’ve named the alchemists above, but in case you missed a turn, they are Danny, drums and instant planning; Dalton Ridenhour, piano; Paul Keller, string bass; Allan Vaché, clarinet; Tom Fischer, tenor saxophone; Dan Barrett, Russ Phillips, trombone; Ben Polcer, Bria Skonberg, Duke Heitger, trumpet:

All I know is that William H. Tyers just left a big LIKE on Facebook. If you find my title slightly inexplicable, just count the faces in the video.  And they were only part of the musical crowd.

You should have been there!  It’s happening next year on April 15-16-17.  Make plans.

May your happiness increase!

MR. SMITH GOES TO NEW ORLEANS (HAL SMITH, JAMES EVANS, KRIS TOKARSKI at the BOMBAY CLUB, APRIL 11, 2015)

I feel surrounded by friends.  There is the superb drummer Hal Smith (whose mastery of sounds is quite delicious), whom I’ve known for years, pianist Kris Tokarski, whom I hold dear although we’ve not met, reedman / singer James Evans, who is even more un-met but much admired . . . and the nimble new videographer Kelley Rand — who captured this wonderful trio at New Orleans’ Bombay Club on April 11, 2015.

Here are three samples:

MEAN TO ME

LOVE IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER

LESTER LEAPS IN

Kelley’s also captured SUGAR, OLD FASHIONED LOVE, MY SILENT LOVE, JUST YOU, JUST ME, ROSETTA, BODY AND SOUL, and ‘DEED I DO by this trio, as well as wonderful solo performances by Kris. Here’s a tenderly swinging DROP ME OFF IN HARLEM, the title of his CD:

What wonderful music.  Thanks to everyone for spreading the gospel of swinging love.

May your happiness increase!

MUSIC BLAZING IN THE DARKNESS: TAL RONEN’S HOLY MOLY (JAY RATTMAN, ROSSANO SPORTIELLO) at LITTLE BRANCH (April 13, 2015: PART ONE)

The string bassist / composer / arranger / good fellow TAL RONEN is not only all these heroic things, but he creates imaginative ensembles.  I’d heard of his HOLY MOLY when I was on the other coast — Christmas Eve and Christmas at Smalls — and had wanted to be there but couldn’t.  However, just a few nights ago I was able to visit the HOLY MOLY trio — Tal, string bass; Rossano Sportiello, piano; Jay Rattman, clarinet — at Little Branch (22 Seventh Avenue South in New York City) for a late session of music.

Before we turn to the videos, which require a serious preface, here’s what Tal had to say when I asked him about this delicious ensemble:

Holy Moly has its start about three-four years ago, when Spike Wilner had me bring my band to play at Smalls on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, me being non-observing and so on. I don’t have a lot of opportunities to bring a band, since I keep pretty busy playing in other people’s bands, and band leading is a huge headache.  But I welcomed the challenge, and brought a group of great straight-ahead guys to play. It became a tradition, and I brought my band on those two nights the next year, and the following one. 

However, around last Christmas, I had a different idea. My mind has been brewing with a musical concept for a while. Plainly put, the concept can be described as “impressionist sketches on romantic themes.”  I have a special passion for the work of great American composers like Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Hoagy Carmichael, who mix a romantic classical approach with the genuine feeling of American folk forms, the blues, roots music etc. I also have a special passion for the interpreters of what can be called the impressionist age in jazz, namely greats like Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Art Tatum, Oscar Pettiford and my personal mentor, Frank Wess. I was looking for a way to have both my passions, undiluted. This led me to this great crew – Jon-Erik Kellso, Rossano, Jay, Steve Little and Tamar Korn. I decided to call it Holy Moly as an irreverent wink to the holiness of the holiday that was our birth. It also has a certain old timey ring to it which denotes our direction, and lastly, well, when you’re done hearing these guys, that would be your response.

HOLY MOLY! indeed.

I recorded eight videos at Little Branch, and present the first four below.  But there’s a catch.  Little Branch is a basement room, imitating the closeness of a speakeasy, and it is thus quite dark.  I seated myself three feet from the piano, clarinet, and string bass, set up my camera, opened the lens to its widest setting, and began to shoot — the camera recording complete darkness.  Good sound, but no visual whatsoever.  (My pal and video colleague Laura Wyman asked me if I had left the lens cap on.  No, for better or worse.)

There are a few small glimmers of candles in glasses, and in one of the videos someone took some photographs, so the flash weirdly illuminates the players, but otherwise these videos are the finest jazz radio you can imagine.  I found this terribly funny: better to have nothing to see and decent sound than the reverse — bright vistas and terrible noise.  (From long habit, I initially moved my camera and microphone to capture the musician soloing, but gave that up quickly as a whimsy, no more.)

And since people tell me they have trouble keeping up with JAZZ LIVES, these four long performances will give you an opportunity to turn up the volume, stack the dishwasher, groom the cat, pay a bill — whatever needs to be done.  If this weirdness is bothersome, I apologize.  I suspect I have created more than forty-five hundred videos so far on YouTube, so there might be something you haven’t yet seen.  I ask the pardon of those readers who find the blackness terrifying, also.  The music blazes gorgeously.

In case you haven’t been reading closely, there’s nothing to see here.  Keep moving . . .

Four classics:

WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS:

MANDY, MAKE UP YOUR MIND:

LIZA:

POOR BUTTERFLY:

The overall ambiance is of a Goodman small group, but it also reminded me of a Jerry Newman session with Tatum and Pettiford, Minton’s 1941 moved downtown and forward in time. I’d follow this group — or other Tal-creations — wherever they were.

May your happiness increase!

“PENSIVE AND SWEET AND WISE”: HILARY GARDNER and EHUD ASHERIE HONOR RODGERS and HART at MEZZROW (March 17, 2015)

Here are two more beautiful songs from the Rodgers and Hart evening that Hilary Gardner and Ehud Asherie created for us on March 17, 2015, at Mezzrow on West Tenth Street, my new basement shrine to lyricism. The tender duets Hilary and Ehud create for us are tremendously moving celebrations of love.  Love is in the lyrics, in the melody, and of course in the performances.

WAIT TILL YOU SEE HIM, a paean in three-quarter time to the lover who is announced but not yet tangible, frankly beyond the singer’s powers to describe adequately.  (If you haven’t felt this way, have you truly been in love?) Hilary’s second chorus is both vulnerable and triumphant, a marvel:

I DIDN’T KNOW WHAT TIME IT WAS is a song of revelation: I was wandering the universe, my internal chronograph not working . . . until I met you.  And now all feels right. It’s a song of delight in that moment when emotion and evidence come together, through love, to create a new aware being:

What a lovely time it was.  And sublime it was, too.  I’ve posted other performances from that night here — and I hope for more.  Singly or in tandem, Hilary and Ehud never fail to move me.

Hilary and Ehud wouldn’t mind my closing with a recording from January 12, 1956: Lester Young, Vic Dickenson, Roy Eldridge, Teddy Wilson, Freddie Green, Gene Ramey, Jo Jones — doing TIME, a little faster.  Even the slightly untuned piano can’t make this any less of a masterpiece:

THIS JUST IN: Hilary and Ehud will be returning to Mezzrow on May 18, 2015.  Whether you’re in love or out, you owe it to yourself to hear and see this divine pair.

May your happiness increase!

SWEETHEARTS, NAUGHTY AND UNTRUSTWORTHY: THE EARREGULARS at THE EAR INN: JON-ERIK KELLSO, MATT MUNISTERI, SCOTT ROBINSON, ATTILA KORB (January 25, 2015)

Not all sweethearts are easy to deal with.  When they’re ON PARADE, they remind you that you’re alone. Nobody wants you to join in the amorous festivities.  That pretty young thing with the rouged cheeks?  She’s fallen from grace and is NOBODY’S [                 ] NOW.

Here, the mightily eloquent yet light-hearted EarRegulars — the Saints of Soho, known far and wide — give us two musical dramatizations of Sweetheart-ness gone awry.  They are Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Matt Munisteri, guitar; Attila Korb (visiting from Hungary), trombone AND trumpet; Scott Robinson, bass saxophone AND taragoto.

The first composition is the 1919 BLUES MY NAUGHTY SWEETIE GIVES TO ME — whose lyrics are a complete theatrical performance — read them here — an encyclopedia of sure-fire jokes of the time.  For me, this song comes in to the jazz repertoire with the lovely slow-drag version by Jimmie Noone and his Apex Club Orchestra, later by Eddie Condon on the JAMMIN’ AT CONDON’S recording (whose cover features Cliff Leeman’s right leg and the essential thermos).   But this SWEETIE offers up some mean blues in the eye and heart of the beholder, or perhaps the endurer.

The EarRegulars adopt a tempo that honors both ideas, and the result is glorious, a masterpiece of versatility, as Scott moves from bass sxophone to taragoto, and Attila takes up his trumpet to have a fascinating chat with Jon-Erik:

SOMEDAY SWEETHEART

Later, they explored SOMEDAY, SWEETHEART (I am used to it with the comma) — written that same year, a song of sullen unhappiness, sung by the lover who has been betrayed.  Oddly enough, the furious hurt lyrics are married to a very sweet melody, both of which can be explored here.

And here is the EarRegular performance — superficially less ambitious, with no instrument-swapping, but expressing the highest degree of lyricism and sonic variety:

I don’t know the moral of this offering, except to wish that all Sweeties be Naughty in the most gentle pleasing way, and that no Sweetheart be a betrayer. I hope for nothing but Sweetness for all of you.  And that the EarRegulars continue for as long as they want to, since they bring the deepest pleasure and restoration to us.  Catch them almost every Sunday night from 8-11 (approximately) at The Ear Inn, 326 Spring Street, Soho, New York City.

May your happiness increase!

DOCTOR REDMAN’S PRESCRIPTION

Good advice from the Doctor, 1931:

I think with longing of catching up on my sleep . . . but there’s so much fine music to hear!

And — just a thought: who remembers Don Redman these days?  A world-changing arranger, bandleader, saxophonist, and one of the most charming singers ever.  Don’t dare call what he does “talking” in my presence, for the lilt of  his voice and his whimsical phrasing are so delightful.

May your happiness increase!

THE DEFENDANT TELLS HER STORY, THROWS HERSELF ON THE MERCY OF THE COURT (1929)

Miss Baker, guilty of Love.

Counsel for the Defendant, Messrs. Waller and Razaf:

My only hope is that Justice was Merciful.

(One of my favorite songs and a wonderful performance, new to me.)

May your happiness increase!

IF YOU DON’T HAVE A GONG, DON’T EVEN TRY: “JUNGLE BLUES” P.O.R.K in Ann Arbor (April 5, 2015)

You’ve heard the expression countless times, “Don’t try this at home”? I suppose you could attempt to play Jelly Roll Morton’s JUNGLE BLUES at home, but if you don’t have the proper equipment, I suggest you stick to your iPod.

Here’s the evidence.  THE JUNGLE BLUES (Jelly Roll Morton; arr Doc Cook) – Phil Ogilvie’s Rhythm Kings aka PORK. Andrew Bishop (alto sax / clarinet), Chris Tabaczynski (tenor sax / clarinet), Bobby Streng (alto sax), Paul Finkbeiner (trumpet), Justin Walter (trumpet), Gene Bartley (trombone), James Dapogny (piano / co-leader), Chris Smith (sousaphone / co-leader), Rod McDonald (guitar), Van Hunsberger (drums and miscellaneous percussion):

This was recorded for our listening and dancing pleasure at the Zal Gaz Grotto, Ann Arbor, Michigan, on April 5, 2015, by JAZZ LIVES’ Michigan Bureau Chief, Laura Beth Wyman, and her well-trained staff.

I think such things are best left to the professionals. Even if, by chance, you did have a gong in your basement, the rest of the ensemble is not easy to assemble and train.  But the gong is paramount here.

May your happiness increase!

A REMINDER: THE ATLANTA JAZZ PARTY IS ALMOST HERE (April 17-19, 2015)

I am excited to be attending the 2015 Atlanta Jazz Party — a week away!  That’s April 17 through 19th in the very comfortable Grand Ballroom of the Westin Atlanta North at Perimeter.  It’s an incredibly lavish buffet of hot music: seven sets on Friday night, seven sets on Saturday afternoon, seven sets on Saturday night, and seven sets on Sunday. All performers are featured in each session. Atlanta Jazz Party Patrons and Guarantors get to attend all four sessions plus the exclusive Saturday morning jazz brunch!

And there’s something new and exciting: the new Jazz Dinner Buffets featuring surprise special guest performers on Friday and Saturday Night, in the newly created “Johnny Mercer Room” right across from the Grand Ballroom. This change is important to the Party’s survival.  And I know — don’t ask me how — that one of the “surprise special guest performers” is someone legendary.

Who’s playing and singing?  Ben Polcer, Duke Heitger, Bria Skonberg, Allan Vaché, Tom Fischer, Eddie Erickson, Darian Douglas, Sean Cronin, Dalton Ridenhour, John Cocuzzi, Johnny Varro, Rossano Sportiello, Dan Barrett, Russ Phillips, Nicki Parrott, Paul Keller, Danny Coots, Chuck Redd, Rebecca Kilgore.

Here’s Danny Coots and Ten at the 2014 AJP:

and since that sounds so good, let’s have another:

and the song that conveys the way I feel about the Party:

See you there, I hope.  It’s one of those enterprises that truly deserves your energetic support.

May your happiness increase!

“IT’S GOT TO BE SWEETNESS, MAN, YOU DIG?”: MICHAEL KANAN, NEAL MINER, GREG RUGGIERO at MEZZROW, MARCH 23, 2015 (Part Two)

Lester Young told François Postif in 1959, “It’s got to be sweetness, man, you dig? Sweetness can be funky, filthy, or anything, but which part do you want?”*

As someone who has sought sweetness all his life, I delight in that statement. I don’t mean stickiness or sentimentality, but a gentle approach to the subject being considered, loving rather than aggressive or passive-aggressive.

I have met many people who are acquainted with jazz in an intellectual way, who value Miles and Trane as modernists influential as Kandinsky or Joyce, but who have missed or disdained the sweetness that can be so integral to the music.

For some of them, jazz is a mystery to be wary of.  It is intricate, cerebral, complex, a closed system with no way in for the lay person. This might spring from a sensibility that equates anger with authenticity.  Thus, they experience sweet warm music as banal, the faded dance music of oblivious grandparents shuffling around the floor, clinging to each other as the ship tilts dangerously.

“Ben Webster with strings? Oh, that’s beautiful saxophone playing, but does it challenge the listener? It’s too pretty for me!”

I warm to art that embraces me rather than one that says, “Sorry.  You are not educated enough or radical enough to appreciate this.”  Complexity is always intriguing but not as an aggressive rebuke to the listener.  Sweetness can elevate a music that creates a direct line from the creators’ hearts to the hearers’.

And sometimes the dearest and deepest art is a masquerade, where the artists act as if nothing particularly difficult is being created.  But consider Edmond Hall, Harry Carney, Tony Fruscella, Bobby Hackett, Frank Chace, or Benny Morton playing a melody, or the 1938 Basie rhythm section, or four quarter notes by Louis on YOU ARE MY LUCKY STAR.  To fully understand such gorgeous phenomena would take a lifetime, but at the same time the sounds are immediately accessible as beautiful.  This music woos the listener’s ears, brain, heart, and spirit.

Such sweetness, delicate intricacy, conviction, expertise, and deep feeling were all evident when Michael Kanan, piano; Neal Miner, string bass; Greg Ruggiero, guitar, took the stage at Mezzrow on March 23, 2015. Here are three more deep examples:

Michael’s ADORÉE, which he wrote for the late singer Jimmy Scott:

A brisk THE NEARNESS OF YOU:

Ellington’s wonderful THE MOOCHE:

(I thought this performance was especially delicious: in the ideal world, there would be the two-CD set of this trio performing Ellington and Strayhorn.)

Here is the first part of the beautiful music created that evening.

Lester would have loved to play with this trio. I felt his admiring spirit in the room.

*This quotation comes from THE LESTER YOUNG READER, ed. Lewis Porter (Smithsonian, 1991): 189.

May your happiness increase!

FRENCH QUARTER WEST: TIM LAUGHLIN, CONNIE JONES, DOUG FINKE, CHRIS DAWSON, MARTY EGGERS, KATIE CAVERA, HAL SMITH at the SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST (Nov. 29, 2014)

I was perusing Facebook today (face it, I’m hooked) and saw this entry from the splendid string bassist Ed Wise, which I reproduce in part:

Friday, April 10
French Quarter Festival
with Connie Jones’ Crescent City Jazz Band (Tim Laughlin, Bob Havens, Otis Bazoon, David Boeddinghaus, Bryan Barberot and, of course, yours truly.)
Jackson Square
11:00 a.m.

It was and is probably very ungenerous of me, but I got upset . . . for purely selfish reasons.  “How could that beautiful band be playing there without me?” I of course realized this both vain and silly: beautiful music goes on all the time, the swing tree falling in the forest without Michael to video it, but still I felt deprived.

And then I realized, and spoke to myself in the gentle interior monologue I try to cultivate: “Hey, you have many beautiful videos of Connie and Tim from the 2014 San Diego Jazz Fest.  Why not post one of them as your own French Quarter Fest?”

And here we are:

That’s Tim, clarinet; Connie, cornet; Doug Finke, trombone; Chris Dawson, piano; Katie Cavera, rhythm guitar; Marty Eggers, string bass; Hal Smith, drums. Glorious.

And don’t get upset that the song is called FAREWELL BLUES.  This music isn’t saying good-bye any time soon.

May your happiness increase!